Liberal Arts and the Public Good at Sarah Lawrence College
In 2019 the Mellon Foundation awarded Sarah Lawrence College a five-year, $1.2 million grant to advance and support civic engagement through the arts and humanities in Westchester County. The grant is intended to expand our classrooms as we make the College a hub of engagement for our surrounding communities, and it provides a clear set of goals. As co-administrators, our task has been: to hire and support three Public Humanities Fellows on three-year appointments, based jointly at Sarah Lawrence and at one of our eight community partners; to competitively award nine course releases to SLC faculty to develop new courses that engage students in the ongoing work of our partners; and to hire and support a fourth Digital Media Fellow based at the College who would develop a program teaching digital media skills to young people in our area, support the other Fellows, faculty, and students in their coursework and community engagement, and spearhead the creation of a website to share ongoing projects and a digitally-based asset map of facilities and capabilities available across our partner organizations.
We bring significant experience to this work. Mara has been the Director of Community Partnerships at Sarah Lawrence since 2011 and enjoys the benefit of more than 30 years of community-based work in different educational settings, including public schools, private schools, not-for-profit organizations, research foundations, and political advocacy groups. Melissa has served as Associate Dean of the College for the last four years, and brings a thorough knowledge of her faculty colleagues and of the SLC curriculum as professor of Russian language and Russian and Comparative Literature at SLC since 1995.
However, this grant has provided our first sustained institutional foray into the field of public humanities. What we have learned is that experience and advance planning serve only to the extent that they are combined with an openness to the different ways that the College and our community partners working together might achieve our goals. While the public humanities have an enormous amount to offer, the joint nature of the endeavor also demands a great deal of everyone involved. In a set of forthcoming blog posts, our Fellows will share their experiences working with their community organizations and how they have adapted to meet the needs of the specific community within which they are working. We are very grateful to our partner institutions and especially to the institutions hosting our three Public Humanities Fellows—the Yonkers Public Library, Wartburg, and the Hudson River Museum—for their willingness to imagine the possibilities along with us and for the sheer amount of time that they have devoted to a project that, for many, falls outside their job descriptions. We are even more deeply indebted to our four fellows: Dr. Yeong Ran Kim, Digital Media Fellow; Dr. Kishauna Soljour, Public Humanities Fellow at the Yonkers Public Library; Dr. Emily Bloom, Public Humanities Fellow at Wartburg; and soon-to-be Dr. William Garcia-Medina, who will be starting as the Public Humanities Fellow at the Hudson River Museum in June 2022. It’s not just that they have developed innovative teaching and programming even, astonishingly, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (see here for a few of their initiatives), but that they have done so in different ways that suit their community organizations as well as their own interests and strengths. The great excitement of this work, we have found, is exactly what makes it so challenging: there’s no road map for the public humanities, and we have to remain flexible to allow our collaborative work to evolve.
On our end, we have tried to balance supporting our Fellows as innovative teachers, scholars, artists, and community activists while also giving them the space to develop their own projects together with their colleagues and supervisors at our partner institutions. Mara’s role has been to work closely with our partner institutions to make sure that their needs are being addressed and that our Fellows are thriving in their roles outside the College. While she has succeeded on all fronts, launching the College’s own program in teaching digital skills to young people during COVID has proved especially trying. As our partner agencies continue to operate largely or entirely digitally, sudden surges in COVID cases force last minute changes of plans, and vaccination requirements limit participation, Mara and Dr. Kim have had to rethink their approach more than once. Melissa’s job has been to help faculty re-imagine what a class in a given discipline—or cross-listed across more than one discipline—might look like, and a special challenge and point of pride has been her success in enlisting more traditionally humanistic disciplines, like literature and history, in the project of community engagement. Our first cohort of SLC faculty, inspired by our Fellows, will launch their own experiments in teaching and learning together with our local community this spring, as we turn to the final and most challenging piece of the grant: sustaining our collaborations and broadening our circle of learning after our remarkable group of Fellows has moved on.
Melissa Frazier is professor of Russian language and literature and currently serves as Associate Dean of the College. She holds a PhD from the University of California–Berkeley and is the author of articles and books on topics including Pushkin, Senkovskii, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Russian Formalism. Awarded the 2007 Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize for “Best Work in Romanticism Studies,” by the International Conference of Romanticism, for Romantic Encounters: Writers, Readers, and the “Library for Reading” (Stanford University Press, 2007).
Mara Gross, Director of Community Partnerships and Service Learning, has been an educator for the past 30 years. She has worked in a wide variety of settings: public schools, private schools, not-for-profit organizations, research foundations, and political advocacy groups. Regardless of the specific setting, there are three core ideas that unite all of her work: making connections between institutions and their local neighborhoods, developing relationships across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries, and encouraging time for people to think about the meaning of their own experience. In short, for Mara, the heart of education involves an awareness of ourselves interacting with our environment—action and reflection, thinking and doing, inextricably linked, like two ends of the same string.